As Lent 2021 began, many joked that they felt the penitential season had not ended since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. While well-meaning, this humor belies the profound stress, change, fear, sickness, and loss that has transpired over this past year. Since the impact of the pandemic is real and continues–albeit with increasing hope given the rate of vaccinations–how do we reconcile these feelings with the celebration of Easter?
“We are an Easter People, and Alleluia is our song!” Pope St. John Paul II famously proclaimed. Do we betray our Easter faith when the burden of the present pandemic makes it difficult to find joy in this liturgical season?
Our Lord is risen; he’s conquered sin and death! Jesus wishes us to rejoice with him – but when we can’t, then what?
Praying for the grace to rejoice
During the fourth and final week of his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola calls us to “ask for the grace to be glad and rejoice intensely because of the great joy and the glory of Christ our Lord” (SpEx 221). Those of us battling the pandemic blues might consider asking the Lord for the grace to be open and receptive to this joy.
However, it is possible we do not have a desire yet to be open to receiving the joy Jesus is offering. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is a solution: we can pray for the desire for the grace to be glad and rejoice intensely with the Risen Lord.
The Spiritual Exercises guides us to a prayer of repetition. We can pose our request for joy or for a desire for joy to the Lord daily or throughout the day–whenever suits us best. Jesus might respond to us right away or over the course of several days. The key is to ask with expectant faith, knowing that the Trinity desires to respond generously to us (cf. Matthew 7:11).
Actively choosing to rejoice
When one of our friends or family members shares good news–the birth of a child, a promotion, the purchase of a new home–they do so with the hope that we will share in their joy. Sometimes this is difficult. While it may be hard for us to come out of our shells and react with happiness, there is still value in our sacrificial rejoicing. If we instead allow our personal feelings to get in the way of sharing in someone else’s joy–or even worse, if we downplay their news or become resentful towards their happiness–then we do not act as true friends. We can sometimes give our personal negative feelings too much power, keeping us in a despondent mood and potentially affecting our friendships. This inadvertently sabotages our own potential joy, leaving us with even worse feelings from the self-imposed disconnect from our friends.
But when we actively make the decision to rejoice, we refuse to allow sadness to take over. Rejoicing is therefore a decision of the will. Saint Paul commands us, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). This command echoes John Paul II, as Easter People who choose to sing “Alleluia!”.
Admittedly, choosing to rejoice is not easy. This is why we should remember that rejoicing is a grace, and that a desire to rejoice comes from the Lord. Therefore, let us turn to the Risen Lord, as Ignatius counsels, and seek the grace to rejoice with him.
Whenever there is a difficult question, Jesus is the answer.
Returning now to the question of whether we betray our faith with our melancholy, let us turn to Christ: the source of our faith, the giver of our hope, and the fount of pure love. Jesus is the answer, and when we bring to him our whole, honest selves, no matter how we are feeling, he is always ready and eager to receive us. Jesus loves all of us, and not just our good parts. Christ who died for us loves us completely, and he especially desires to offer his love in the areas we might want to hide from him due to fear and shame.
St. Ignatius also asks us to consider the role of Christ as the consoler, “and compare it with the way in which friends are wont to console each other” (SpEx 224).
Recall that prior to the disciples’ discovering their Master had risen, they too were filled with understandable fear and sadness (cf. Mark 16:10, Luke 24:17, John 20:11-15). We can pause and unite through prayer our sadness, anxiety, hopelessness and frustration with that of the first followers of Jesus.
Take your sorrow to a reading of any one of the resurrection narratives. Imagine the Risen Jesus appearing to you, as he did to the Apostles. Imagine Christ the Consoler inviting you to place your hands in the wounds in his hands and his feet as St. Thomas did. In turn, invite the Risen Jesus into the pain you have experienced during this pandemic. Let him touch your wounds. Allow him to bring new life into the areas within you that experienced death. Let Jesus console you.
Repeat this meditation throughout the Easter season, being honest about the difficulty and hurt that you wish to offer the Risen Lord, and trust that he is with you and wants to share with you his Easter joy.
When we encounter Christ, who is also the Consoler, we allow the Lord to bring life into areas of death within us, for he came that we might have abundant life (cf. John 10:10). This especially includes the areas of sadness and darkness, for Jesus the consoler desires that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete (cf. John 15:11).
May we accept the joy of the Risen Lord even amid the pain of this pandemic, so that we too can participate in his mission of consoling those in need of Easter joy.
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